If you’ve been paying attention to space news in the last year, then you already know there is a new space race upon us. It’s not the U.S. versus another country or Batman versus Superman — it’s bigger than that. We’re talking about a heavyweight bout pitting Amazon’s Jeff Bezos against Tesla’s and SolarCity’s Elon Musk. This is Blue Origin against SpaceX and one’s allegiance should be carefully chosen.
What’s most interesting about the race is that it’s more about market share than space tourism. The jobs these companies will eventually compete for involve human space travel, sure, but they also involve the launch and repair of unmanned spacecraft, potential asteroid mining operations, and the material support of state-sponsored science.
For a while, the most recognizable names in private spaceflight were Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They had some overlap, but, by and large, the former is set on owning the future of space tourism, while the latter is more interested in pioneering new technologies that could reduce the overall costs of spaceflight. Then, last year, Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin busted into the ring from out of nowhere and launched its flagship rocket into the skies. SpaceX had a true rival to compete with.
Neither company shows any signs of slowing down — they’re in this till the end. We know many of you are still pretty fuzzy on the major details about Blue Origin and SpaceX, so we break down the most crucial facts and answer your biggest questions about this new 21st century space race.
Both companies are said to be in the midst of a space “race.” Well, what exactly are they racing towards? What’s at the finish line?
Both companies have similar long term goals: to be the premier private spaceflight company of the world. Like I mentioned above, a statement like that does little to really pin down what each company is after — and that’s kind of the point. Spaceflight in the next 100 years is going to look radically different from what we’re used to. It’s counterintuitive to box yourself into a specific vision, and better to grow as something that can adapt to future discoveries and trends.
That being said, both companies also share a very specific short-term goal: make spaceflight cheaper by successfully testing and pushing forward reusable rockets. SpaceX was trying for months to get one of their launched rockets to safely land vertically back on Earth, and then Blue Origin (as seems to be their M.O.) quietly scooped Musk’s company of that achievement by landing its own rocket in November of last year. The whole thing started a bizarre Twitter beef between billionaires with too much time on their hands. SpaceX would finally succeed just a short month later and get the landing of its rocket right.
Bezos did not miss an opportunity to throw a bit of shade.
Where are they in the race? Who’s winning?
Each company would tell you it’s winning, but the real answer is a bit more complicated than that.
So far, Blue Origin has spent the vast majority of its time and money building and testing different technologies — most notably its New Shepard spaceflight system (more on that in a bit). Having landed the damn thing back on Earth twice now, the company is brimming with confidence and demonstrating a consistent pattern of success.
Unfortunately, its accolades are pretty much limited to New Shepard testing. The company doesn’t have contracts with NASA or other spaceflight companies for any missions with an actual purpose. It’s working on a new engine to help ween the U.S. off Russian-made parts for rockets, but even that’s just in the testing phase so far.
And yet, the Musk and his team are in the best of spirits. They have multiple contracts for actual missions with NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and private companies. The company is stepping up its manufacturing process to meet the demand of all of its activities. And, of course, the company is making huge strides with getting its Falcon 9 rocket to land on its own and make spaceflight affordable.
So when it comes down to it, SpaceX is the hare, and Blue Origin is the tortoise. Is it better to be cautious or gung-ho? You’ll have to decide on that one yourself.
Who’s in charge of each company?
Jeff Bezos, best known as the founder and CEO of Amazon, started Blue Origin back in 2000 — two years before SpaceX was founded. Bezos has been fascinated with space travel since he was a kid, and envisions Blue Origin as helping to make spaceflight affordable and accessible to all. Next year, the company will begin flying New Shepard out with human test pilots, with test passengers the following year and hopefully tourist flights in 2018.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ring, representing SpaceX is one Elon Musk — who’s also known for founding Tesla Motors, co-founding PayPal, making Hyperloop a thing we all talk about, and being something of a real life Tony Stark. He founded SpaceX with the express goal of helping to make a human colony of Mars reality.
How did they start out?
As mentioned, Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000. Things were pretty mum for about 15 years, with sporadic developments here and there (mostly with work on the Charon and Goddard flight vehicles), but there wasn’t really a whole lot of groundbreaking work — even while SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and others ramped up their activities. Now, New Shepard is soaking up attention from all parts of the media landscape.
Musk, on the other hand, started SpaceX in 2002. Since the beginning of this decade, when the Falcon 9 rocket was unveiled, the company has made a concerted effort to promote their activities and make their work well known to most spheres of the public. At this point everyone has heard of SpaceX — even people who couldn’t care less about space.
What kind of technology are they rocking?
Blue Origin has the New Shepard suborbital spaceflight system — composed of a rocket booster carrying a crew capsule that can house multiple astronauts. The capsule separates after lift off, and the booster is meant to return back to Earth in a vertical landing. The crew capsule is also designed to return back to the Earth and be used again and again.
SpaceX’s rocket booster, Falcon 9, works in much of the same way — by carrying the Dragon spacecraft up into space. The Falcon 9 is meant to return back to Earth as well in a vertical landing be used again. Dragon, meanwhile, has two versions — one that carries cargo into space, and one that can take people. It’s also designed to be reusable (although the trunk is lost during re entry).
How much money is each company dropping on this race?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Before 2015, Bezos had dropped about $500 million into Blue Origin — and that was before New Shepard surprised the world with a successful test launch. Between 2002 and 2012, SpaceX was working with about $1 billion in funding, accrued privately and through contracts from NASA.
With the profiles of both companies having taken off in the last couple of years, it’s unclear exactly how much they are working with. But rest assured, it’s a lot.
Are they just doing space exploration? Are they involved in anything else?
Blue Origin’s sole focus is space exploration. This includes developing technologies used in future missions — so not everything revolves around launches themselves — but overall, it’s space or bust.
SpaceX is basically run the same way, with one exception: Hyperloop! Musk is using his spaceflight company to help push Hyperloop development, sponsoring this year’s Hyperloop Pod Competition to spur development of a viable Hyperloop pod that could take people across big distances at 700 mph.
What else should I know about the companies, or about Bezos and Musk?
Bezos’ email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He won’t respond, but send all inquiries there. We’re still working on finding Musk’s contact information.
Okay, so who should I be rooting for? Am I #TeamBlue or #TeamX?
If you’re really into bombastic, overhyped action movies with crazy characters and a plot that seems to sputter back and forth before culminating in an insane final fight, you’re #TeamX. If you’re into a softer story that moves with a moderate pace and is character-driven, you’re #TeamBlue.
Who’s going to win??